One of Donald Trump’s long-standing responses to questions about Russian interference is that other countries interfered as well — and, to be fair, he’s not completely wrong. 2016 is in the past, however, and the 2020 race is starting to pick up steam, so it is worth asking: Which countries are likely to interfere in the next election?
To answer that question, you have to ask another question: Which countries have a serious stake in one of the two parties winning?
One would presume the first country that comes to mind is “Russia,” but it is worth remembering the reason why Russia interfered in 2016. While the immediate aim was to aid Trump, the deeper purpose was to sow division and distrust in the United States. It is not immediately obvious whether Russia benefits from either Trump or a Democrat winning in 2020. True, any Democrat would be unlikely to have lots of warm feelings toward Russia. At the same time, it is not like the Trump administration has been all that friendly toward the Putin regime either. Trump’s warm words count, but so do the ratcheted-up sanctions and the legacy of the Mueller report. Bilateral relations are not warming up anytime soon. If Russia interferes, it is less likely to take a side so much as foment even more distrust in the outcome.
No, my eye is looking at a different set of countries. I am less worried about U.S. rivals interfering in the 2020 election than I am about U.S. allies.
The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has expressed previous concern about the political polarization of U.S. alliances before. And as I noted in my recent essay in Foreign Affairs, “Persistent domestic political polarization would encourage Middle Eastern allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, to line up with Republicans and European allies, such as Germany and the United Kingdom, to back Democrats.”
Lest you think I am exaggerating, consider Exhibit A:
Meanwhile, Haaretz’s Amir Tibon and Amos Harel report that the rhetoric coming from Democratic candidates is freaking Israeli officials out:
Israeli officials are concerned about the growing number of Democratic presidential candidates who are promising to reverse President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal....Officials who have spoken with Haaretz in recent weeks described a “political nightmare scenario” in which Israel is dragged into the presidential race because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials will make comments about the Iran deal, at the same time as Trump and the eventual Democratic nominee will spar over its fate. ...At last month’s AIPAC Policy Conference, Israeli Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer gave a preview of what the discussion over this subject could look like during the election year. Dermer said that calls to renew America’s commitment to the nuclear deal are “unacceptable” in Israel’s view.
If you are Benjamin Netanyahu, you will do everything in your power to get Trump reelected. From the Iran deal to the Golan Heights to the U.S. Embassy relocation to the complete absence of pressure to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli prime minister has received concrete deliverables from Trump that would be reversed under a Democratic successor. His choice is clear.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will feel similarly. The Trump administration has backed both of these countries in their Yemen intervention despite the humanitarian cost. They have also taken considerable flak for not going further in pressuring Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his alleged role in the murder of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The recent ratcheting up of Iran sanctions simultaneously raises oil prices and pressures Iran, which, makes it a win-win for these states. MBS will not want the aggravation of a Democratic president who might, you know, castigate him for some minor human rights violations.
At the same time, it seems clear that U.S. allies in Western Europe would be pretty keen on Trump losing in 2020. Germany cannot like being the focus of White House ire. Most of these countries in the region would probably want to see the U.S. reengage on Iran and climate change as well.
So, these are the countries with the most skin in the game. Will they actually try to influence the election? Most of these countries do not want to see their alliances polarized any further, so they do not have an incentive to speak publicly about it. More covert actions would cut against the democratic norms that almost all of these countries still believe to be important. The very awkwardness described in the Haaretz article makes it somewhat more difficult (though not impossible) for Netanyahu to attempt to aid Trump.
The most unconstrained actors with the greatest incentive to interfere in 2020 will be Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They couldn’t care less about democratic norms, and really want Trump to continue being president. If I had to make a list of countries most likely to intervene in 2020 in a sweeping and systemic fashion, it would start with these two Persian Gulf states.